How Citizens’ CCO Captures Earned Media for Yet Another NYC Bank

New York City skyline

[Editor's Note: There's a bank on every street corner in Manhattan. It's barely an overstatement. So, how does yet another bank, new in NYC, garner earned media? That's part of what we asked veteran communicator Peter Lucht, who was named head of corporate communications at Citizens Financial Group in late Sept. Previously, he was SVP, head of media relations and CEO, communications for the bank and served on its corporate executive leadership group.

In his new role, Lucht is heading a newly integrated communication unit. He'll oversee external, internal and executive communication. On top of that, Lucht's portfolio will include corporate events.

We began this interview asking him about Citizens' plans for communicating during a recession. Lucht's responses were lightly edited for space. Part II of this interview will run in January.]

PRNEWS: What is Citizens Financial Group's plan for communication should a recession occur?

Peter Lucht, Head of Corporate Communications, Citizens Financial Group

Peter Lucht: We think about it in a couple of different ways. I tell my team that nobody who works at a public company can ever make promises about how the external environment might impact how we think about things like staffing.

But I know that our leadership and [CEO/chair Bruce Van Saun] are highly committed to being very strategic…so, it's a case of ensuring that the communication function continues to demonstrate value and an understanding of what the company is trying to accomplish.

We know that whether we enter a downturn or not–and Bruce is pretty bullish that if there is a recession, it will be short and shallow–we're going to pursue a growth agenda. And I believe he has an appreciation for the role that communication can play in that agenda.

PRNEWS: So, you won't slow communication if a recession occurs?

Lucht: Right. We know the wrong answer [is]…just trying to hunker down and waiting out [a recession], and then trying to restart your growth agenda later.

Bruce talks about [our plan] in terms of a disciplined offense. We're going to be prudent about setting ourselves up to defend ourselves if there is a downturn, but we're going to continue to pursue this growth plan.

PRNEWS: So, you’ll be strategic, but move ahead?

Lucht: Yes. As I think about how we communicate externally, while we want to be measured about it in the face of a possible downturn, the story continues to be that we have the right plan to take the bank forward. We're going to continue to pursue that.

It's not irrational exuberance. We recognize that there's [the potential for a] disruptive external environment. But we feel strongly that we have the right plan, leadership team and capabilities to continue to execute our growth plans and we'll navigate through this and then onward.

PRNEWS: Is it harder to break through in today’s news cycle than it was when you started your career several decades ago?

Lucht: I've worked in various industries before coming to financial services. In each case, there were challenges with breaking through, because the competition was pretty intense. Sometimes people think of banking, especially retail banking, as a commodity. We call out things that set us apart, [but] it can be hard to break through.

PRNEWS: So, what are you doing to break through? 

Lucht: It's a matter of digging down and getting creative. You have to truly do the hard work across a variety of stakeholders within the company, not just with communicators, but with folks in the field, at various levels and functions, which is where insights come from.

PRNEWS: Do you have an example?

Lucht: Yes. I'll give you an example where we have at least begun to crack the code. In February, we acquired the east coast branches of HSBC, most of which are in New York. And we acquired a New Jersey based bank called Investors Bank Corp.

Well, New York is the most competitive banking market, perhaps in the world. There are banks on every corner of Manhattan.

PRNEWS: Exactly. So, what did you do?

Lucht: We thought very strategically about the New York market and what we think the strengths of Citizens are. And a key of Citizens’ a commitment to the communities it serves.

The insight was we can't come into this market and pretend that we know everything about New York…We have to demonstrate a commitment to listening and understanding the market and committing ourselves to helping do good...if we're going to be credible as a market center.

So, we looked across New York's neighborhoods, because we realized that we had to start at the neighborhood level. Each one is different, of course.

We strategically looked at things that we could do from a community engagement point of view, which would help in areas such as economic development and support for small businesses coming out of COVID, primarily.

PRNEWS: For example?

Lucht: We sponsored a mural in little Ukraine dedicated to the spirit of the Ukrainian people. In Chinatown, we announced a Chinatown revitalization fund for small businesses. [In early November], we announced a $300,000 grant for veteran-owned small businesses in the Bronx. And we did similar things in other neighborhoods.

We think these demonstrate our commitment to understanding and actually walking the talk of supporting communities.

Coupled with that, in September, we did a marketing activation in Flat Iron called The Living Portrait of New York. It was another demonstration of our commitment and, we think, understanding of the city. Only by understanding the city can we realize our vision of being that trusted provider.

We're looking at this as a model for how we might engage with some of our traditional retail markets.